Texas GOP playing from a position of strength

 By  Mike Ward and Peggy Fikac, Houston Chronicle

Democrats may see better days in a couple of election cycles

Gubernatorial candidate-Greg Abbott after casting a ballot during early voting

Julie Montero pushed her way to the front of the crowd as a black SUV wheeled up and brought the governor’s race to town. She’s the kind of suburban mom and previously disinterested voter that both parties have been trying to woo.

Democrat Wendy Davis’ filibuster of a tough anti-abortion bill in the state Senate last year propelled her into the race and, presumably, burnished her appeal among women voters. But Greg Abbott, her Republican opponent, has ridden an even more powerful force as he’s stumped across the state, Texas’ deep conservatism.

The immediate object of Montero’s affection Friday morning, as she jockeyed for position, was tough-guy actor Chuck Norris, who emerged from the SUV and railed against President Barack Obama. But it was Abbott who got the loudest applause from the GOP faithful four days before Tuesday’s election.

“He said things I agree with. He looked me in the eye. I like that,” said Montero, 38, a single mom and karate enthusiast with two teenage children who owns a freight-expediting firm. “I’m going to vote for him. He speaks my language.”

While much has been made in the national media of Davis’ star power and the Democrats’ efforts to turn Texas, if not blue, then at least purple, Abbott and his fellow Republicans have played from a position of strength and never looked back. The state’s growing Hispanic population has long tantalized Democrats, but most political observers agree it will take another couple of election cycles before demographics and turnout change enough for the state to turn purple or blue, if then.

To political observers, Fortress Abbott appears impenetrable, and Texas remains the most Republican of states, redder than ever. The only remaining question, all the polls seem to show, is how much Abbott will win by. There is mild concern among some conservative Republicans that Davis could be gaining ground and pushing ahead of Abbott in Harris and Bexar counties. But victory for Democrats on Tuesday will most likely come down to whether Davis loses by less than the 13 points Republican Gov. Rick Perry beat former Houston Mayor Bill White by four years ago. If she does, it could be a signal that Democrats’ chances might be improving to win future elections.

But not by much.

Never had a chance

In many ways, Davis probably never had much of a chance. She was running in a Republican-majority state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in 20 years. Her liberal views on several key issues never seemed a good match with Texas’ rock-ribbed conservatism that has taken a sharp right turn in recent years. Her challenger started out with a $21 million fundraising lead. Her stage presence too often seemed more wooden than the coolly affable Abbott.

She never led Abbott in the campaign polls.

“It’s looking pretty grim for her,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus, echoing the sentiments of more than a dozen other political experts who have closely watched the governor’s race. “To win she would have to have a dramatic drop in Republican turnout, which won’t happen, and a surge in turnout by Democrats in large numbers that won’t happen. She would need a spectacular surprise to win.”

In recent weeks, Abbott and other Republicans running for statewide office have stuck to a careful playbook that has led to repeated GOP sweeps in Texas, even as Democrats have insisted they are building their turnout to eventually win statewide offices. “If you are looking for a perfect candidate in Texas, that’s still a Republican,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

In many ways, Texas’ campaign stage that assured an Abbott win was set long before Davis burst into the national spotlight for her Senate filibuster against tighter abortion restrictions. So strong is the Grand Old Party’s clutch on Texas that state GOP chairman Munisteri predicted that Davis could win only if there were “a complete collapse of Republican turnout on Election Day.”

But at a time when President Obama’s national unpopularity has been magnified by thousands of undocumented immigrants and children flooding across the border, perceived foreign policy blunders, national economic woes and the Ebola scare, Texas Republicans appear motivated to turn out in droves.

Add to that Abbott’s fundraising advantage, which Jeff Rotkoff, an adviser to Democratic mega-donors and Houston residents Steve and Amber Mostyn, called “unambiguous and undeniable.” Abbott’s war chest will allow him to spend more than $10 million on TV ads in the election’s final days while Davis’ coffers have been drained.

Earlier this week, at a San Antonio rally for Abbott, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn – a pragmatist whose political fortunes rose with those of fellow Republicans in Texas over the past two decades – said Davis is simply “out of step with the values of most middle-class Texans.”

“She raised a lot of money in New York and California and Washington, the elites, the liberal Democratic Party,” Cornyn said. “Because she is an attractive, articulate person, I think people hoped that she could sell their message here in Texas, but I think it was disconnect between the message and the messenger, and disconnect between the values of ordinary Texans and those of the elites in the liberal Democratic Party.”

As a gubernatorial candidate, Cornyn said, she “initially became well-known for filibustering late-term abortions, and that hardly in a place like Texas is a firm foundation upon which to build your political appeal.”

Hispanic turnout

In the Rio Grande Valley in far South Texas, Democrats have tried their best to rouse the sleeping giant, Hispanics. They now make up about 40 percent of the state’s population. But in the 2012 elections, they were only about 22 percent of the electorate. And turnout among low-income Hispanics – those most likely to vote Democratic – is particularly low.

On a recent campaign swing through Edinburg, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, blasted away at her GOP opponent, Dan Patrick, for disrespecting Hispanics in campaigning to toughen immigration laws and secure the Texas border with Mexico with troops.

“He’s only been here one or two times,” she said. “Every time he comes, they’ll take a picture of him in a gunboat. He understands that to get votes in his primary, he has to insult our families, our culture.”

It is a refrain she sung throughout the campaign, as the only Hispanic at the top of either party’s statewide ticket. On this day, she was touring with actress Eva Longoria and local Hispanic leaders.

For his part, Patrick has made no apologies for his views that border security and immigration enforcement are needed, though he has been much quieter on his position in recent months than he was before a contested GOP primary and runoff earlier this year, where he was pitching to ultra-conservative voters who agreed with him – and got him the nomination.

Abbott, too, has made South Texas a focus, selling a much softer message of opportunity and jobs. If he is elected, his wife, Cecilia, will become the first Texas first lady of Hispanic descent, a point he makes often.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, acknowledged that while party faithful continue to work for a Davis-Van de Putte win, some hoped-for early turnout numbers have fallen short, especially among Hispanics in the Houston area. While Hispanic turnout in Democratic strongholds like San Antonio, El Paso and the Valley appear strong, he said, “we’re not seeing the base turnout we’d like to see in Houston, to the numbers we’d projected.

“But there’s still time, and we’re working hard,” Hinojosa said last week, with the early voting period about half over. “Our challenge has been to get Hispanic families motivated to vote, which is difficult with all the obstacles the Republicans have thrown up to prevent that – like voter ID.”

Lightning rod

On a sunny day last week in Lubbock, Abbott campaigned with Patrick in their first joint appearance. Because Patrick had become a lightning rod for criticism earlier this year for suggesting that undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately as part of a crackdown on border security, Abbott had campaigned for the Hispanic vote on his own.

But on this afternoon, they were on the same page: Vote Republican if you want a bright Texas future.

“We don’t just want to defeat them, we want to crush the Democrats,” Patrick told the crowd, with his typical bravado. “I believe in my heart that we are America’s last hope, Texas.”

As Patrick makes clear, ultra-conservative, tea party activists still carry immense clout in Texas. Even after tea party fortunes have waned elsewhere, the credo of God, country, capitalism and freedom garner a strong following – and votes, particularly here on West Texas plains, where the move from a Democratic to a Republican state government got an early foothold 20 years ago. It is an area where both Abbott and Patrick play well, together, even though Davis has visited several times to court the votes of Texas women.

Wheelchair ad

A key moment in the campaign took place several weeks ago, when Davis aired a controversial TV commercial using an empty wheelchair to blast Abbott as hypocritical for supporting limitations on lawsuits even though he won an estimated $10 million settlement after a falling tree in Houston left him paralyzed in 1984. Davis’ campaign advisors hoped the sharply negative ad might trigger an October surprise – a turnaround that could see her eventually win the election.

Then-Attorney General Mark White, a Democrat, had come from behind in 1982 to upset incumbent Gov. Bill Clements, the first Republican elected to the top post since Reconstruction. Ann Richards had done the same thing in 1990 to beat Republican oilman Clayton Williams, after he cracked a joke about rape that coalesced Texas women to support Richards.

But no such luck seemed to happen this time for Davis, whose tactics struck many as more than a tad desperate after the wheelchair ad.

“Wendy Davis is a wonderful person, extremely sincere, but she doesn’t appear to have the momentum in her campaign that Ann Richards did,” said Gilbert Cuthbertson, who has been watching Texas politics as a Rice University political science professor for 50 years. “Ann Richards was portrayed as a tough-talking grandma on a motorcycle. … Davis doesn’t have that image.”

If campaigns are mostly about perceptions, then Davis never measured up for many Texans.

“Being in Texas, she was already facing an uphill battle,” Douglas Richter, 26, a project manager for a printing company, said at a San Antonio rally for Abbott. Her campaign had “a bunch of missteps,” beginning with several small but significant misstatements about her early years as a single mom. “It wasn’t just one thing that was wrong, it was several things,” he said. “I don’t think she ever recovered from that.”

Charles Hanna, 40, a Houston Ship Channel worker who lives in San Antonio, echoed that sentiment: “One, she lost on the issues. That’s a given. Texas is not as blue as she thinks.”

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